The endangerered species known as local government assemblymen

The number of local government councilmen in Japan dropped a staggering 39% from 2003 through 2011, according to a recent survey by the Asahi Shinbun. The average compensation for assemblymen also dropped by 8% over the same period.

The drop was most pronounced in the municipalities that merged during the “Great Heisei Merger” of municipalities from about 1999, but it wasn’t limited to just those municipalities and also included prefectures. Municipalities subject to merger over the last ten years or so saw a drop of 58% in the total number of assemblymen — losing more than half the total numbers in just 8 years. The largest single drop was Niigata City, which ten years ago was 13 municipalities, where the merger resulted in a total of 314 local assemblymen to just 56, a drop of 82%. Even in the largest cities of the greater Tokyo area, and large cities mandated by cabinet order (seirei shiteishi), these regions saw a drop of 14% in the number of assemblymen, even though most of these regions were growing.

Having observed politics in the US and in Japan very closely for the past decade, what this shows to me is a surprisingly positive side of reform in Japan. The US would never be able to achieve this type of reduction of publicly elected officials, not even during the “Reagan Revolution.” In Japan it took place through a relatively silent, technocrat revision of government. It was a relatively top-down reform, implemented by incentivizing (or bribing) local municipalities to cooperate with money benefits and guarantees on various financial obligations, and while there are criticisms on both sides about the scope of the reforms, to me, this is a promising sign for Japan’s ability to change in the future.

5 thoughts on “The endangerered species known as local government assemblymen”

  1. The US would never be able to achieve this type of reduction of publicly elected officials, not even during the “Reagan Revolution.”

    Of course not — it’s a federal state. Washington constitutionally has no business telling Sacramento or Albany what to do in terms of their own governance. In Japan, the Diet and the bureaucrats have a greater deal of control over the organization and operation of prefectural and municipal goverments, to the extent that Diet statutes control local government and elections directly.

    From googling around, it looks like some US state legislatures have successfully reduced their own headcounts in order to save money — and have arguably NOT saved money because each legislator ends up needing a bigger staff to deal with their bigger constituency. Reductions probably make sense in the backwaters of Japan where the population is steadily graying and disappearing, but not so much in areas with a stable or growing population.

  2. Washington is always strong-arming the states, and could “incentivize” states to reduce headcount in the same way they do everything else. See the “National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984” (the child project of Elizabeth Dole in the Reagan administration) when they forced every state to raise the drinking age to 21, because if it is below that, states lost 10% (tens of millions) in federal highway funds.

  3. The federal government might have a hard time legally forcing states to trim their local governments due to the states’ partial sovereignty, but the states themselves DO have the legal power to reorganize counties or municipalities – which are chartered by the state government in much the same way that municipalities and prefectures are chartered by the national government in Japan.

  4. Joe Jones has a good point here. Comparing the US and Japan on this issue is pure apples and oranges. Would be far more illuminating to see if attempts by other non-federal, centralized states like France or South Korea to merge municipalities had produced an outcome different from Japan’s.

    And anyway, endless comparisons of the US and Japan sort of went out the window in the 1990s when academics finally woke up to the fact that the US (and NOT Japan) was the true oddball and outlier among developed countries. In the years since, Americans–often characterized by blind faith in the efficacy of free markets and a vitriolic, pathological hatred of their own government (two qualities that are frankly incomprehensible to most citizens of other developed countries, not to mention an impediment to any attempt at municipal streamlining by Washington)–have lived up to that oddball, outlier status.

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